The Energy of Ensembles

Last Sunday at my church the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus joined to sing a complicated medley of old gospel tunes, ending on a chord of voices that nearly knocked the stained glass out of the windows and the folks in the balcony out of their pews. The joy of singing this song, which I compared to white-water rafting (and a couple of times I nearly fell out of the raft), reminded me of the energy of being in an ensemble.

My coaching business is a solo practice and while I am a member of many “teams,” including the Ambassadors Club at the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, a band and chorus at church and the board of directors of the National Speakers Association of Illinois, I operate mostly as a single unit. When I go to the office, unless I bring my dog Peanut, I’m there by myself. No water-cooler banter, no one to distract me from the work at hand. I do have an office mate across the hall and we occasionally stop to catch up between our respective clients but for the most part, I’m alone until I meet with clients or head off to a meeting. For someone like me who enjoys being with people, this sometimes can prove to be a challenge. That’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about our combined choirs’ performance. Here are just a few of my observations about the benefits of being in an ensemble:

  • People are working together toward a common goal. In the case of our medley, which was not an easy piece of music, we had to rehearse together. Dan Keck, our irrepressible music director who leads the men’s chorus, worked patiently with the women on learning our parts. We knew we had to pull off the song by the next week, so there was a pleasant pressure to get the vocal parts worked out and we all gave up time we otherwise would have spent on our families, our work or other commitments related to self to practice the piece together.
  • The sum is greater than the parts of the whole. Did I get that right? Singing a solo, or even a duet or trio, is fun but when you put all those men’s and women’s voices together, you get an amazing sound that you could never get alone. I like to say that good music “rearranges your molecules,” and that last note of our song certainly did just that.
  • The “you” disappears and you become a “we.” As fascinating as we may find ourselves, sometimes it’s exhausting to be us. Being in an ensemble means you set aside your focus on self, your issues and concerns, to work with others on the task at hand. Being a “we” has a completely different agenda and it can provide relief from that circular logic that often comes from working by ourselves.

Whether you’re working on a team or working by yourself, I think it’s important to recognize the power of being in a group. For those of you who work in corporations and get frustrated with the need to always negotiate, and sometimes capitulate, perhaps you can take a new look at the value of being part of a team. And for those of you who, like me, work primarily in solitude, you may want to look for ways to engage in ensembles to tap into that energy source. Whether it’s sitting together with other Chamber members, working on a project or an event, or adding your voice to a mighty chorus, there’s a singular joy in working with others.

[Photo: Dan Keck leads the Men’s Chorus at Gary United Methodist Church, Wheaton, IL.]

Swimming in Choices

We are swimming in choices. That can be a good thing–in fact, I named my business CHOICES Worldwide in order to emphasize the power of choice in our businesses and careers. The freedom to choose our vocations based on our unique gifts, talents and abilities is an awesome right and responsibility.

But the choices I’m talking about here are the overwhelming ones we experience in today’s marketplace. Think of your last visit to Home Depot: did you get dizzy just walking down the aisle? And if you’re out of your usual milieu, as I am at Home Depot, the multitude of options for things that I a) don’t know what they are and b) wouldn’t know how to use even if I did know what they were is mind-blowing. Even in an environment I understand, like Target, I can get that same sense of overload. Look at the toothpaste shelves–so many choices! Teeth-whitening, tartar-fighting, fluroride, sensitive teeth, mint, regular… sometimes I just grab one and run.

The abundance of choices and our freedom to choose may be overrated, according to Sheena Iyengar, a prominent social psychologist at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010). Dr. Iyengar and her colleagues have done research on the cultural implications of choice, why people make the decisions they make and what drives us to choose. Whether we’re choosing among toothpastes or making more sobering choices related to our careers, we overstate the role of choice in our lives.

In an interview from “Knowledge@Wharton,” Dr. Iyengar shares why a multitude of choices don’t always bring us what we want. “It turns out that we don’t always recognize our preferences even though our choices are supposed to be in line with them,” she says, citing research she’s done at the University of Pennsylvania. When asking seniors what they wanted in a job at three different intervals, the students changed their answers along the way. In the end, the correlation between what they said they wanted at the beginning of the experiment and what they got when they graduated in May was “utterly non-significant.” And the people who remembered what they originally said they wanted were less satisfied with the job offers they had accepted. “Maybe there is some truth to [what our grandmothers told us, that] happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want, but wanting what you got,” Dr. Iyengar says.

The pursuit of the American dream is based on some assumptions—that our choices are limitless, more is better and choices affirm our individuality and freedom. But the work shared by Dr. Iyengar challenges these assumptions. She cites instances where, given too many options among financial products, employee participation in a 401(K) plan dropped 15%. Overwhelmed by options and exhausted by the volume of choices we make in our lives, we become disengaged. And this can have a powerful impact on us, not just as consumers baffled by 24 varieties of toothpaste but also in our role as business leaders.

Past research has shown that employees report greater job satisfaction when given a high degree of choice. A recent article, “Tiptoeing Toward Freedom” in Columbia Business School’s “Ideas at Work” blog, reported that Dr. Iyengar and graduate student Roy Chua conducted experiments to test how giving employees autonomy and decision-making latitude can impact their perceptions of managers as leaders. Those leaders who offered their employees limited (my emphasis) choices—“some options, but not too many”—were seen as more effective. Too many choices, however, gave employees the perception that their leaders were not as competent or conscientious.

In this high-tech, 24/7 world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices we have to make. Whether you’re thinking about what’s next for you in your career or choosing from a menu, save your brainpower for the choices that matter. And when it comes to toothpaste, grab a box and run.

Note: Some parts of this blog were originally written for and published in the First Illinois Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) Chapter newsletter, First Illinois Speaks.  

The Logistics of Job Satisfaction

When you’re evaluating the elements of a satisfying career, don’t underestimate logistics. Where we work and how we get there contribute a great deal to our job satisfaction, and the joy of a new job can fade quickly if you have to spend an hour and a half just getting there.

An article in yesterday’s online edition of the Wall Street Journal supports my hypothesis. In “Secrets of the Happiest Commuters,” Sue Shellenbarger writes that new national data shows a significant spike in the number of Americans whose commute is longer than an hour, from 300,000 in 2011 to 11.1 million people in 2012. In order for someone to be satisfied with a longer commute, economists estimate that a person needs to make 40% more money to rationalize the trade-off in time. The story goes on to highlight ways in which commuters make the time they spend in cars, on trains or riding the subway more palatable.

As someone who lives in a “train town,” I understand this trade-off. When we first moved from Phoenix to the Chicago area, I was intrigued by the culture of commuter trains. Our Metra rail system reaches out like an octopus from the heart of Chicago to suburbs reaching far to the north, west and south. My job in the city required a five-minute drive from home to a public parking lot; a train ride that could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the time I traveled; then a 20-minute bus ride followed by a five-minute walk. By the time I got into the office I had spent an hour and a half just getting to work. This meant I spent a staggering 31.5 days per year in transit. That’s a full month just getting to and from the job.

Some folks don’t mind the commute. I know a man from my church who commuted from our home town of Wheaton into the city for more than 30 years and he said he enjoyed his commute time. Another gentleman, a former colleague of mine from a publishing company, rode the train with friends and had a running poker game that lasted, literally, years. Back when I was commuting daily, nearly everyone had a newspaper or a book and a cup of coffee. These days you’ll find most commuters plugged into some kind of electronic device, from a laptop to an iPad to a smartphone to a Kindle.  Some use the time to daydream and stare out the window; others take a snooze.

People told me to enjoy my commute–that it provided me with “down time,” time to read or write or do more work (!). But over the years I came to resent the commute and the time it robbed from me and my family. In fact, the WSJ article reports a 2011 study in the Journal of Health Economics noted that “[w]omen tend to be unhappier about long commutes than men, even after controlling for any improvement in income, job satisfaction or housing quality—perhaps because women tend to shoulder more housework at home.” After six years of schlepping to and from the city, I deliberately looked for a job closer to home. Through my “Golden Rolodex” I connected with a hospital president I knew who soon hired me as her VP of marketing for a hospital that was a four-minute commute from my home. And now that I’m self-employed with an office in downtown Wheaton, I can make it to work in 3.5 minutes if I don’t hit a red light.

I’m not saying that everyone should work close to home–where you work and how you get there are personal choices that each of us has to make. I’m just recommending that when you weigh the factors of what makes you happy, remember to include those logistics. Otherwise, what originally seems like a minor annoyance can become an intolerable compromise that threatens your quality of life.